|Vermont Colleges Explore the Future of Women’s Studies|
Women’s Studies programs, as they have traditionally been called, are currently part of the curriculum at three Vermont colleges and the University of Vermont (UVM). While the programs vary in size and structure, they are all dedicated to the belief that the subject makes a measurable contribution in both academic settings and the wider world.
By the time the first Women’s Studies course in the country was offered in 1969, at Cornell University, feminist scholars and activists had been debating the history, experience and perspectives of women for some time. Concerned about the power inequalities and stereotypical assumptions about women that prevailed, a constituency for women’s rights and a movement called second-wave feminism had begun.
Feminist scholars, trained in different disciplines, methodologies and philosophies, sought to understand the causes, workings and outcomes of inequality in society. They also began to examine how institutions of higher education were contributing to claims and assumptions about women and their lives from flawed, male-only perspectives.
Out of this new consciousness came the interdisciplinary field of Women’s Studies, strengthened and supported by the burgeoning women’s movement of the ’70s.
Eventually the field of Women’s Studies was institutionalized, and academic programs began to thrive across the country, beginning at San Diego State University and the State University of New York/Buffalo. A scholarly journal, Feminist Studies, appeared in 1972, and scholars founded the National Women’s Studies Association in 1977. This was followed in 1990 by the first Ph.D. program in Women’s Studies at Emory University.
Today more than 600 women’s studies programs offer minors, majors and Ph.D. degrees, and the field is recognized for its contributions to achieving equality for women in all societies. Underscoring social justice, social change and human rights, feminist scholars have linked this course of study to social movements across the globe, as they work with activists and other change agents to end all forms of discrimination, especially sexism, racism and heterosexism.
As programs have matured and grown nationally and within Vermont, their scope and substance has continued to evolve. Nowhere is this more evident than at the University of Vermont, which changed the name of its program in 2013 to Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS).
Dr. Felicia Kornbluh, a historian with a Ph.D. from Princeton and a B.A. from Harvard/Radcliffe, directs the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at UVM. She explains: “We wanted to bring sexuality and gender identity more into the center of what we do. That’s where our field is now, and we wanted to be up-to-date. At the same time, we wanted to keep women in the title because of what we know about women’s experiences. The new title reflects our best effort to incorporate all constituencies without losing our own identity. We represent a commitment to bridging divides, creating dialogue and making space for everyone.”
Faculty held long discussions about the name change, the future of the program and how its curriculum should be changed or expanded. It was an inherently challenging task given that they had generational, philosophical, discipline and training differences, but as Kornbluh says, “It was a remarkably peaceful and supportive process.”
As a result, the program’s name change reflects a new emphasis on “all possible genders and gender expressions and identities as objects of study” and “sexuality as an analytical category that is central to our work,” along with adding sexuality and gender identity to the curriculum in more comprehensive ways, developing students’ ability for “higher level thinking and scholarship” and enhancing their theoretical and research skills became a priority.
So did the study of men and masculinity, the incorporation of “transgender” as an analytical perspective and a more global vision. In addition, all majors are required to do an in-depth internship “to make a connection between the campus and the outside world.”
Begun in the early 1980s, the UVM program relies on interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration among faculty. There are currently 29 students who have chosen GSWS as their major, or who will graduate as majors under the program’s old name, Women’s and Gender Studies. Nine students also minor in GWS (or WGST), or in the program’s directed minor in sexuality and gender identity studies.
Middlebury College’s program grew out of a reading group started 22 years ago by several feminist professors, who decided the college should offer women’s studies. Later, the name was changed to women and gender studies, and four years ago the name changed again, as the faculty began to think about how the field was changing. As a result the entire curriculum was revised.
“It was a multiyear process decided by committee,” Laurie Essig, the program’s director explains. Now called Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, the program’s curriculum began to focus more on theory and research methodology because “there is feminist theory and methodology. Students don’t have to study those things elsewhere.” Students are also required to study a variety of topics from a wide range of intersectional offerings that address issues of race, sexuality and gender within national and global frameworks.
“At Middlebury College we’re about feminist scholarship, gender and undermining the assumption that there are just men and women. We’re about understanding the connection between race, class and gender. And we’re about what’s happening now in the U.S. and the world and why,” Essig says. “For example, why is Ferguson [where an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer] a feminist issue?”
St. Michael’s College “changed its program name to Gender Studies to be more inclusive of people of all genders,” says Julia Berberan, director of the Center for Women and Gender, but “the program hasn’t actually changed a whole lot here,” she says. “We don’t make sexuality explicit in the title, but our classes touch on diversity, identity and intersectional oppressions, including sexuality and sexual orientation, race, gender class and so on.”
St. Michael’s is a Catholic college noted for its liberal arts. “As long as we present both sides of an issue, our students have things to think about. Basically, we say, ‘Here’s the argument. Think about it and see what you think is right.’ We encourage critical thinking. We’re lucky that as a Catholic college we have a Gender Studies program and we can talk about these issues in a relatively free way,” Berberan says.
The program at St. Michael’s started offering Gender Studies as an interdisciplinary major in 2008 and Berberan thinks enrollment is growing slowly. But she says, “We’re in a tough place because we offer a small number of classes specific to Gender Studies and so far a small number of students are taking them.”
She points out that this creates a kind of catch-22: without more demand, the curriculum isn’t expanded, but without more course offerings students are less likely to understand and want to major in Gender Studies.
Castleton College recently began offering Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) as a major field of study. The faculty and administration struggled with what to call the program, says Melinda Mills, coordinator of the WGS program. “We didn’t want to let the historical contributions of women disappear by dropping the ‘W’ in WGS. However, we also wanted to address the misconception that Women’s and Gender Studies exclude men. Moving away from binary thinking regarding gender allows us to bring into focus a gender continuum.”
So far Castleton has a “handful of students because it’s a new major,” but they are doing broad outreach to attract more students to a program that is “designed to reflect and strengthen an interdisciplinary approach that will attract students from a wide variety of backgrounds,” says Mills.
“We try to lay a foundation for students and talk about specific issues related to feminism. By asking questions like, ‘Is there an emerging fourth wave?’ and ‘Is feminism still necessary?’ we attempt to broaden their understanding of social justice and issues related to inequality. We unpack myths and use tools they develop in class to critique their own perceptions, develop solutions to problems, and in general, make meaningful change and responsible contribution to communities. Emphasis is also placed on understanding feminist theory and methodologies, which shapes students’ ways of seeing, knowing and improving the world.”
No matter which position about required learning one takes, the consensus among feminist academics and activists is that the work of ‘women’s studies’ matters. “It deserves the widest possible audience,” Felicia Kornbluh points out, because feminist analysis “can and should be changing public policy. It should be impacting the wider community. That’s why we look for collaboration with any organization that wants to move that agenda forward.”
Julia Berberan agrees. “Our work is so relevant. People are now starting to see that more and more, especially in social justice work. We approach the world with a more just lens.”
Adds Laurie Essig, “There’s a real fashionableness to feminism at the moment.” She points out that largely due to pop culture and social media, it’s become more accepted and less maligned. “There’s a real opportunity now to interest students in feminism in productive ways. I’m excited about that momentum and the chance to build on what’s happening. I’m optimistic about that.”
Elayne Clift is a frequent contributor to Vermont Woman. She writes from Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayne-clift.squarespace.com)